Social networks have become a critical, but underutilised, aspect of the marketing process.
Gartner analysts have examined the way social networks shape consumer buying behaviour and found that the majority of consumers rely to some extent on social networks to guide them in their purchase decisions. These social networks often include individuals who fulfil different roles or functions in recommending products to people they are connected with.
Gartner conducted a survey in the fourth quarter of 2009 of nearly 4 000 consumers in 10 key markets and used the resulting data to identify groups who can play a vital role as influencers in brand awareness, market research and viral marketing campaigns.
"Our survey results showed that one-fifth of the consumer population is composed of 'Salesmen,' 'Connectors' and 'Mavens.' These are three roles that are key influencers in the purchasing activities of 74 per cent of the population," says Nick Ingelbrecht, research director at Gartner. "Salesmen and Connectors are the most effective social network influencers and the most important groups for targeted marketing based on social network analysis."
Gartner's social network framework defines the following roles:
* Connector – Connectors perform a bridging function between disparate groups of people. They have contacts in different social groups and enjoy introducing people to each other. Connectors come in two types: Heavy Connectors, who have varied but tight circles of friends and family with whom they maintain very regular contact; and Light Connectors, who span a much wider range of different groups, but inevitably with ties that are much weaker and less frequent.
* Salesman – Salesmen have extensive social connections, but their defining characteristic is their propensity to persuade people to do things, buy certain products and act in certain ways. This role is not so much a commercial activity but a personality trait that impels Salesmen to get people around them to act on information in highly directed ways.
* Seeker – Seekers connect with other people in order to find out the information, skills and obligations they need to conduct their daily lives. When Seekers go shopping, they tend to seek advice from experts who tell them which are the best gadgets to buy, where to get them and at what prices.
* Maven – Mavens are knowledge exchangers or information brokers. They are experts in particular areas, and other people go to Mavens for advice. Unlike Salesmen, Mavens aren't out to persuade people but use and acquire information for their own interests. Organisations that reach out to Mavens could come unstuck, because Mavens are just as happy spreading negative commentary about a product or company as a positive message.
* Self-sufficient – These people prefer to find out for themselves what they need to know in order to satisfy their needs. Self-Sufficients do not pay much attention to other people's recommendations of new products; they prefer to do their own research and make up their minds in their own time. This group of people can be a tough market to target because they are relatively impermeable to viral influences and bandwagon effects.
* Unclassified – Two-thirds of the population did not definitively fall into any of these social network categories. This was to be expected, and reflects Gartner's approach to processing the survey data, which did not classify respondents who did not clearly fall into one of the categories. In addition, people more often than not exhibit characteristics of different categories and may fulfil different roles in different social contexts.
Gartner says it is essential for device vendors, application developers/publishers and communications service providers to understand how the different roles react to marketing information. For example, Self-Sufficients are not particularly swayed by the usual sources of marketing information, nor do Mavens typically act on the information that is their stock in trade. However, Salesmen, Seekers and Connectors tend to act on marketing messages and are receptive to them.
For marketers, the key "take away" is that Salesmen, Seekers and Connectors are the most effective social network segments to target. Conversely, Mavens — the "information magpies" — are much less useful because they will amass market information but not necessarily do anything useful with it, unless others tap them for their product knowledge. In the case of Mavens and Self-Sufficients, service providers should focus on improving their "shopping experience," whereas in the case of Connectors, Seekers and Salesmen, the focus should be on both the shopping experience and making information easily available.
"Companies attempting to use social networks should develop relationships with key customers over a period of time and progressively refine the social network profiles of those individuals. In this way, the most suitable individuals can be targeted with the right information, products and promotions in the most cost-effective way," says Ingelbrecht. "Retailers who run small shops have instinctively done this with their best customers for years with the intention that these 'VIP' customers will not only buy the new products but recommend them to their friends."